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Iran and U.S. are trying to renegotiate nuclear deal

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, the Biden administration floated the idea of an interim nuclear deal with Iran. This would be a temporary agreement to fix the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump violated in 2018 when he unilaterally decided to pull the U.S. out of that deal that included China, Russia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Iran has signaled that this won't do as it continues to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium.

We're joined now by Vali Nasr, professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Professor Nasr, thanks so much for being back with us.

VALI NASR: Thank you.

SIMON: Help us read what's going on now. Where do you think things stand? Are there backchannel negotiations, do you assume or that you even know about?

NASR: No, I don't think so. I think the Iranians have been talking to the Europeans quite intensely, and they have reported the results of those talks to the American administration. And when President Biden was in Europe, he got a firsthand briefing, also, from the Europeans. And so I think what we're seeing is exactly what it is. You know, there's the two sides getting ready to resume negotiations from positions that are quite far apart.

SIMON: We keep hearing conflicting stories about just how close Iran is to perhaps developing a nuclear weapon. What do you believe? And why do we hear this profligacy of stories?

NASR: Iran is obviously accumulating sufficient amount of enriched uranium that would allow it to build at least one bomb. But building one bomb does not make a country a nuclear power. And I think now there's a sense that as - Iran is getting closer to a threshold to have material enough for a bomb, but to actually build a bomb and have capability of delivering it, et cetera, is much farther away.

SIMON: What's the point of Iran limiting inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency?

NASR: These are all pressure tactics on the United States and the Europeans, essentially warning signs that if they don't abide by their part of the deal, which is to provide Iran with economic benefits, that Iran would also withhold cooperation on the nuclear side of the deal.

SIMON: I have to ask, Professor Nasr - and maybe it's a question we need to bring up every now and then - why would Iran want to build a nuclear bomb?

NASR: I don't think it has ever said that it wants to build a nuclear bomb. I think this is an assumption that we're operating under. It's a - it's perhaps a rational assumption. But I think Iran's main objective right now is to create a bargaining chip large enough to negotiate the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran and allowing Iran to integrate to a much greater extent in the world economic system. I don't think there is a strong strategic reason for them why they would want a bomb, and the bomb is not a defense against the United States or Israel, and the bomb is not really material to their competition with the Arab world. But a bomb is the only thing that makes the United States take Iran seriously enough to negotiate lifting of sanctions.

SIMON: What do you infer about the opinion of many people within Iran on these issues? We know, for example, that in addition to all this, there have been massive protests recently over the drying of a major river in the city of Esfahan (ph) and the feeling that federal officials, the national government hasn't helped. So there are some immediate concerns, aren't there?

NASR: Yes, there are. The Iranian public is generally unhappy with the quality of governance and management of the economy in their country. And in that sense, Iran is not atypical. But this is conflated by the economic pressures that have been put on Iran from the outside because of the maximum pressure strategy that President Trump imposed on Iran. So that makes for a much more complicated attitude among the Iranian public.

SIMON: Is there a feeling among many Iranians that they should or shouldn't have nuclear weapons?

NASR: I think Iranians are a nationalistic bunch. They believe that this is a statement about their greatness, about their right to have advanced technology to try to solve their electricity issues and that the United States and its allies have been unfair in punishing Iran for pursuing the program and then punishing Iran for abiding by a deal that they themselves negotiated and signed on to.

SIMON: The next round of multilateral talks will take place in Vienna November 29, so very soon. What do you look to come out of that, do you think?

NASR: I think the very first set of meetings, the two sides will be sizing each other up. You know, there's a new Iranian negotiating team coming to the table. They have to get comfortable in their seats, so to speak. They have to get to know their American counterparts. Unlike the previous team, which has - had negotiated the deal in 2015, this team actually had stood opposed to that deal.

So my expectations for the first round is limited. I don't think any - there's going to be any breakthroughs on this. And that team is also looking to see whether the United States and the Europeans will come to the table with anything different than where things were left off in June.

SIMON: Vali Nasr is professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University. Thanks so much for being with us.

NASR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.